The Whats and Whys of Vulnerability

What is vulnerability?

Vulnerability is all about dropping your armour, being open about how you’re feeling, being honest with others, and admitting mistakes or shortcomings.

For example, it could be asking for help on a project or admitting to your boss you’re feeling overwhelmed and need support.

In the past, the norm would be to leave your emotions at the door when coming in to work. Or at least, that’s what was expected. I believe we’re fooling ourselves to think we can make decisions without emotions. They’re a natural and unavoidable part of being a human. They also provide us with information that can assist us in making better decisions, if we are tuned into them and can accurately understand how we’re feeling and why.

Some benefits of being vulnerable

1. Learn from Mistakes

Being accepting of the fact that no one is perfect is a big first step when it comes to learning from mistakes. If you are afraid to be vulnerable, you are less likely to gain the valuable lessons that can come from something not going your way.

2. Innovate

To innovate, risk is essential. Coming up with something new involves uncertainty, which means that risk is inherent in it. You need to risk failing in order to be creative. If people don’t feel it’s safe to fail, they will stick to the status quo and be afraid to think outside the box.

3. Integrity

It can demonstrate that you are honest and reliable. If you are afraid to admit mistakes or ask for support, your colleagues or boss may find it harder to trust you and it may diminish your integrity.

4. Greater Sense of Belonging

As humans, we all have a need to feel a sense of belonging. In order to truly belong, I believe that we need to feel that those around us know both our good and bad sides, and accept us regardless. If we feel we are only accepted when everything is going well, it can diminish feelings of belonging and cause us to believe we need to be perfect and put up a façade.

5. Manage Stress

By recognising your limits and communicating them to others, you are less likely to overstretch yourself by taking on something that’s beyond your capabilities. This will help you challenge yourself with achievable tasks and manage stress. Admitting mistakes and facing them head-on, rather than running and hiding from them, can also improve resilience over time. You will be better equipped to face future challenges.

6. High-Quality Work

Asking for help or support may be recognised by others as showing you have an interest in getting the task completed to the highest possible standard. Ensuring you have enough resources to complete something is likely to improve the quality of work produced.

7. Proactivity

Being vulnerable and not afraid to fail may lead to people being less afraid to try new things, to take ownership, to be proactive. They may venture out of their job description to support others or try new things, which can be hugely beneficial. If they’re afraid of being vulnerable, to try something and fail, they’ll probably stick to what they know, and remain safe in their comfort zone.

Some downsides

We can’t ignore the fact that in some instances, vulnerability will work against you.

In some companies or cultures, it can be seen as weakness, or used as evidence you’re not up to the challenge. That doesn’t mean that’s true, it just means some may perceive it to be.  If there is a “blame” culture or a strict hierarchy, it may not be helpful to be vulnerable.

It can also be a downside if you are over-expressive with your emotions or over-sharing with your problems. This may transfer your stress or negative emotions to those around you, which is unfair to your colleagues.

It’s important to be mindful of the message you’re communicating. Before sharing something personal or admitting mistakes, ask yourself, “is it helpful for me to share this?” Would it be more effective for you to try to resolve my mistake first, or manage my emotions internally, rather than expressing them in the moment?

The role of leaders

Leaders play a crucial role in creating an environment where others feel comfortable being vulnerable. If leaders want to connect with their employees, they are advised to be more vulnerable. An authentic leader serves as a role model for moral and fair behaviour. A transparent approach commands esteem and confidence from employees.

They can have a great impact on the creation of psychological safety in their team and organisation. Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. It is one of the essential components of a high performing team.

If leaders notice that people don’t ask questions or speak much during meetings, if there are no differing views or difficult conversations happening, or if they uncover mistakes that have been hidden or blamed on others, these are signs that there is a lack of psychological safety.

What do “blame games” achieve? No learning or improvement comes from pinning a mistake on a particular person or group. If you develop a culture that emphasises the importance of learning from failure or mistakes, you will get workers spending less time and effort trying to hide mistakes, and more time on improving their performance.

In an ideal world, leaders would recognise that silence is not golden, it is a problem. A quote by Andy Stanley says that “Leaders who do not listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.”

It can take a lot of bravery to be vulnerable, but the benefits of doing so are clear.